Darren Clarke Wins Open Championship

Will Northern Ireland's golfing success lead to Portrush Open?

Wouldn’t you know it? Northern Ireland doesn’t produce the winner of a major golf tournament in 64 years and then three titles come along in succession in the space of 13 months,

First, way back when, there was the late Fred Daly, who won the Open Championship at Hoylake in 1947. Then came G Mac – Graham McDowell ended that long barren spell with the US Open title in 2010 in Pebble Beach. Then Wee Mac – Rory McIlroy repeated the performance a month ago at Congressional.

And now, not to be outdone by his stable mates, Big D – Darren Clarke has revived his career in the most spectacular style by finishing at the top of the leaderboard at the 2011 Open. Holding his nerve in the wind and rain that sometimes battered the infamous links course of Royal St George, Sandwich in Kent, the Dungannon man played better golf than any one else.

His five under par total 275, three strokes fewer than his nearest rivals, Phil Mickleson and Dustin Johnston, was enough to confirm that his name would be added to the other 139 winners of the world’s oldest major professional tournament.

The rumours that Clarke’s best years were behind him, and that at 42-years of age he could never again hope to compete at the top alongside the game’s elite, ultimately proved unfounded. Clarke becomes the oldest winner of the trophy since 44-year old Roberto Di Vicenzo in 1967 at Royal Liverpool.

As he prepared for what he described as a long evening of celebration, a somewhat dazed Clarke said, 'It's pretty amazing right now, to tell you the truth. It's been a dream since I've been a kid to win the Open, like any kid's dream is, and I'm able to do it, which just feels incredible.'

In Clarke’s case it has taken 20 years of dedication and sheer persistence to claim this much sought after prize. 'I played okay today,' he said. 'I did what I needed to do. The last couple of holes I was trying not to make any stupid mistakes. I just tried to play really carefully and it was good enough to win.'

His previous best at the Open was as runner up to Justin Leonard in 1997, the year that he made his Ryder Cup debut. By that stage, Clarke had already clocked up tour wins at the Alfred Dunhill Open and German Masters, as well as creditable finishes in the European Order of Merit.

His bank balance expanded rapidly with a victory against Tiger Woods in the WGC-Accenture Match Play final in 2000. And his continued presence as part of the Ryder Cup team has been well deserved, although most recently his role was as non-playing vice captain to Colin Montgomery at Celtic Manor.

In 2006 at the K-Club in County Kildare, Clarke’s appearance on the winning Ryder Cup team came only six weeks after the death of his wife Heather from breast cancer. In spite of the emotional pressure, Clarke won all three of his matches as Europe celebrated an impressive win over the USA. And Heather was never far from his thoughts during the last four days of this year’s Open, as he edged his way to the front of the field at Sandwich.

'There's obviously somebody watching from up there and I know she'd be very proud of me,' he told the packed galleries on the 18th green at Sandwich as he picked up the famous claret jug and a winner’s cheque for £900,000. 'Heather would probably be saying, "I told you so". But I think she'd be more proud of my two boys. It's been a long journey.

'If I hadn't won I could still have said I did my best. I ask my two boys to do their best and I can't ask for any more, so I think their dad should try and do the same. Bad times in golf are more frequent than the good times. I've always been pretty hard on myself when I fail because I don't find it very easy to accept that.

'There's times I've been completely and utterly fed up with the game, but friends and family say "get out there and practice and keep going". That's why I'm sitting here now.'

An indication that Clarke was getting back into form came six weeks ago in Majorca, where he again had three strokes to spare on the chasing pack at the Iberdrola Open. His performance in winning his 13th title on the European tour showed that his iron play and putting skills, so long a feature of his professional success, were coming back into alignment.

However, the bookmakers still didn’t shorten the pre-Open odds beyond 150-1 for a Clarke victory. And, considering that Clarke has not finished in the top ten of a major tournament since the turn of the century, it is hard to blame them. Not that Clarke minded. 'I won six weeks ago and the more you put yourself in winning positions the more comfortable you get with it, and I’ve been very comfortable with myself this week,' said Big D.

As Clarke takes time out to enjoy the celebrations, the undeniable fact is that Northern Ireland has become a hot bed for producing major winners. Golf addicts here are asking when will the Open Championship return to these shores?

The last occasion was in 1951, when England’s Max Faulkner’s three under par 285 at Royal Portrush was enough to claim the £300 first prize. While the size of the prize fund has changed, getting the Royal and Ancient to change its mind is going to take a little longer.

The R&A, the administrators of the rules of golf, are coming under pressure to reconsider a decision that Royal Portrush should be kept off the list of courses that are capable of hosting the Open.

Ahead of last week’s event at Sandwich, Peter Dawson, the Chief Executive of the Royal and Ancient, said, 'I don’t think it’s something that’s going to be in any way imminent, but it’s certainly something we’ll have a look at again in view of the success of the golfers from that part of the world.

'Obviously there’s much emotion about Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy’s victories, and why don’t we go back to Northern Ireland and perhaps Portrush in particular? And I understand that. You can’t, however, base where you hold the Open on where the players come from. I think that should be obvious to anyone.'

But that was, of course, before Darren Clarke’s brilliant display ambled to its conclusion on Sunday.

However, to be fair to the R&A, there are a multitude of factors other than the challenges of the Portrush course itself that need to be considered. A golf major requires as much thought and planning as a Ryder Cup, and anyone involved with the K Club in 2006 will remember what the scale of that was like.

The focus of the Open Championship coming to Northern Ireland would have a positive effect on the whole island, and with several years advance warning the necessary infrastructure could be put in place. The undoubted benefits to the tourist industry would last long into the century.

Maybe there is something in the air that has produced our new champions McDowell, McIlroy and Clarke. What ever that something is, it should be harnessed for the good of us all.

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